A Foot in the Door at a Small Liberal-Arts College

What you need to know about the conference interview


December 15, 2014

You’re standing at the edge of a hotel ballroom, where scary-looking older professors are interviewing job candidates. You spot the table where you have your next interview. Another candidate sits there wearing an expensive suit, and she’s making the professors laugh. As she walks away confidently, they’re still chuckling. They confer for a few moments, scribbling on their notepads. You think, "Oh my God, she got the job! They loved her." And then you quickly wonder, "Do I know any jokes?"

I promise that you have no idea how her interview actually went. You can’t tell—from seconds of laughter in a crowded room at the Modern Language Association conference—whether that candidate will get the job. Hiring decisions are made by committees. No matter how much the professors at the meeting may like a candidate personally, they have to take many factors into account when they get back to campus and justify their feelings to their colleagues.

At my small liberal-arts college, we receive hundreds of applications and spend hundreds of hours evaluating cover letters and supporting materials before we invite 10 to 12 potential colleagues to the MLA conference for first-round interviews. From those interviews, we choose two candidates to come to the campus for the final round.

As an associate professor of Spanish, I’ve conducted interviews at the MLA for tenure- track openings at least four times over the past 10 years, as colleagues retired or left the college. I’ve met a few applicants who look great on paper but give weak interviews. That’s disappointing, because if you’re unprepared during a 30-minute conference interview, it’s hard for us to get a sense of your promise as a future colleague.

A few years ago, I wrote a column for The Chronicle that focused on how to write cover letters for a teaching job at a small college. This time, I will focus on the conference interview and offer seven tips on how to present yourself as the true professional you are.

How do you prepare for a first-round interview? By: (a) carefully reading the job announcement, (b) carefully reading the website, and (c) engaging in mock interviews. Don’t skip any of those steps.

The job ad signals the kinds of questions you may be asked at the interview. I’m always surprised when a candidate appears shocked by a question about how to teach a particular course when that topic was mentioned in the position announcement. In addition, be prepared to discuss your experience with any campus programs, such as community-service efforts, mentioned in the ad.

Next, look at the college’s website. Familiarize yourself with the department’s activities. Check out the college mission statement and the department’s mission and vision statements. Read them carefully. Those documents give you an idea of how the institution sees itself and what the department believes is important.

Finally, find a professor to engage you in mock interviews. You may be tempted to ignore this step because it is nerve-racking. Don’t. A mock interview will help you shine during the real thing. Ideally, your mock-interviewer is a professor who has served on a hiring committee. If you are applying for language positions, you will be interviewed in both the target language and in English. Practice your answers in both.

Mock interviewers can help you shape your description of your dissertation. They can tell you to stop chewing on that strand of hair. And they can help you practice answering dozens of questions, especially the dull and clichéd ones. Hiring committees often have to ask interview mainstays—such as "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" or "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?"—because some administrator or committee member insists.

Some of those questions require a lot of preparation. There’s an art to describing your greatest weakness in an interview: You should never give one that raises a red flag ("I have trouble finishing anything") or that makes you seem defensive ("I’m a perfectionist"). The best answer will be specific to you. For example, you could talk about how much you want to grow as a teacher and mention a particular aspect of teaching that you want to concentrate on. Whatever the specifics of your answer, focus on future growth—framing your response in a positive way—rather than implying that this is something you lack.

At a small liberal-arts college, our satisfaction with you as a colleague will depend in large part on your teaching abilities. We need to get a sense of you as an instructor. So be prepared to talk about your experiences in the classroom. Be enthusiastic and give concrete examples of activities and assignments that have gone well. If we ask, give examples of those that didn’t go well, and why. Also be prepared to talk about how you would teach your dissertation topic to undergraduates.

Naturally, you will be discussing your research, starting with a description of your dissertation. You will also be asked about your future research plans. We want to know that you have ideas that go beyond your doctoral thesis. If you have already submitted articles for publication, that’s great. If not, there is no need to apologize.

Use your mock interviews to develop a list of four or five questions to ask your interviewers. Two of the questions should be about undergraduates. For example, you could ask, "How would you describe the students at the college in general?" Ask about student involvement: "I notice that there is a Spanish Club on campus. What kinds of activities do they engage in?" One of your questions should involve research: "Are there research or interest groups among the faculty?" That lets us know you are projecting yourself into the job.

Be prepared to say why you want to teach at the particular college that is interviewing you. You may want to scream, "Because I need a freaking job!" when I ask you, "Why Gustavus?" But I have to ask, and your answer will demonstrate how much you know about the department and the institution.

Be very well organized. You’ll be nervous during the interview. As you search frantically through your bag, your syllabus or handout will elude you every time. So it’s important to organize yourself beforehand.

I recommend that you have a different pocket folder for each interview. Write the name of the college and the interview time and place on the front of each folder. It should contain your talking points for the interview, the department course list, and any syllabi you would like to give to your interviewers. Your interviewers will give you props for being organized, and you will feel more confident. A low-tech approach here is best: We all know how distressing it can be when a laptop fails at the least convenient time.

Some candidates also arrive with a wire-bound teaching portfolio that they hand to us. It usually contains a CV, teaching philosophy, syllabi, and student evaluations. We find that heartening, since a focus on teaching shows us that a candidate understands what it means to work at a small college.

Note that the pocket folder mentioned above (mostly for you the candidate to peruse during the interview) and the portfolio (which you hand to us) have two different purposes.

Don’t be snarky. There’s a cardinal rule of interviewing that some candidates seem to have forgotten: Never, ever criticize anyone with whom you have worked. It’s bad form. It makes you look like a complainer. Go out of your way to avoid doing this.

Be pleasant and friendly in your demeanor, but don’t worry about developing a personal connection with your interviewers. It’s hard to gauge your success at that, and your attempts will only make you more anxious.

Be on time. Get there a few minutes before the interview, if you can. As you’re waiting, read through your notes for the interview. Please try not to stare as you wait. It makes us nervous.

Be clean. Your clothing needs to accomplish one simple task: to keep your interviewers from thinking about your clothing. Don’t wear a neon fake-fur scarf because you want to stand out. Instead of focusing on you, I will be wondering, "Does it shed?"

Don’t get me wrong. I may love the scarf. But I don’t want to have to consider it during our precious 30 minutes at the MLA. Go out and buy a professional-looking pair of pants or a skirt. Thrift-shop gear is fine. Just look neat and clean.

Don’t worry so much about being nervous. We know you’re anxious. We did this once, too. You’ll warm up as the interview progresses, and we’ll try our best to put you at ease by ignoring your nervousness.

And here is what we won’t do: We won’t try to trip you up. For the most part, interviewers are not jerks. I know, I know: You’ve heard all sorts of horror stories. But most interviewers won’t ask you, out of the blue, to discuss Habermas’s critique of postmodernism. You got this far. We figure you know your stuff.

If you are asked a question that you don’t expect or one you’ve already answered, don’t get flustered. It could be that the interview is going really well from our perspective and we are starting to dig deeper. Dig with us. You can do this.

Be interested in the job. At the end of the interview, tell us that you are interested. Afterward, email a thank-you note. No matter how the interview went from your perspective, tell us again in that note that you want the job. Make your note specific to us: "I would love to join a department that values service learning so highly." If there is something you forgot to say in the interview, now is the time.

You don’t have to be perfect. We’re not searching for someone with a taste for expensive suits. At a small liberal-arts college, we’re looking for a flesh-and-blood colleague: an excellent instructor, a hard-working researcher, a responsible department citizen, and an effective adviser.

You don’t even have to know any good jokes.

Nancy Scott Hanway is an associate professor of Spanish at Gustavus Adolphus College. In her next column, she’ll offer advice on managing a campus interview at a small liberal-arts college.